You are in the shower, enjoying the cascading water on your face, and suddenly a phrase, an idea pops into your mind that makes sudden sense out of a problem you have been wrestling with for days. How did that happen?
You are driving in your car on that endless stretch of highway between Macon and Savannah, Interstate-16 to be precise, or Hell in my personal Book of Life, the most boring stretch of highway in Georgia, and an idea comes to you in a flash. What’s up with that?
Sitting on the porch, watching the clouds approach, listening to birds sing, smelling the salt air, feeling a breeze that gently moves the moss hanging from the live oak tree, and there it is, an idea for a piece of writing. And you wonder as to where the thought came from.
This is the amazing capacity of the human brain to make connections. And for me, when it happens, it is a moment of joy that leaves me with a familiar grin….. smiling, man….beautiful (thanks, Dr. Hook and The Cover of the Rolling Stone). My brain is making connections that I could not force into being by my logic and rational, linear thinking. I experience this moment of connection as a “gift” from somewhere beyond myself. And yet, it emanates from my awareness, and my consciousness in a creative connection that feels magical, even mystical.
Researchers are now able to hook us up to functional MRIs to map this kind of brain activity which differs from our normal state of thinking. You can literally see neurons firing, neural pathways streaming, blood flowing, synapses synapsing, as if that was a word created by Dylan. Connections are being made within the network that exists within our brain. Turns out, we can train our brain to make those connections by exercising it, just like you would build quad muscles in your legs or biceps on your arm. Pausing from our usual rush of consciousness, focusing on this or that, we can take a “pause for the cause”, to breathe deeply, allowing our minds to become open to the moment, aware of simply being.
We innately have the capacity to make such linkages from the moment we are born. Infants have an amazing gift of making connections both in quantity and quality from the start. With that ability, they learn language in order to communicate, discover object permanence, and even learn to imagine solutions to problems as they interact with their world. We slowly add linear, rational patterns of thinking and logic as we develop structures that assist us in making connections with our environment. The world becomes more predictable for us as we can anticipate certain patterns, certain things that predictably follow certain actions. And that’s a good thing, for it enables us to move more easily through our day.
And yet, there is a price to be paid if we forget our capacity to imagine what “could be” rather than stay within the easy comfort of patterns. Last week, I pointed to the ways that our typical education process tends to squelch that creative capacity. These patterns that we learn and are trained in are referred to as “boxes” that organize our thinking and perception of reality. Again, that’s a good thing as it helps us negotiate the world in which we find ourselves. And it remains a “good thing” until it blocks our capacity to simply be aware of our world, capable of seeing new connections rather than just going conveniently on auto-pilot, following the familiar, comfortable, and acceptable patterns. For some of us, these patterns, or boxes, become traps that lock us into a particular way of seeing reality, preventing us from seeing things from a fresh perspective.
These “boxes” often come from the particular and peculiar worlds that we live in every day, such as our educational institutions, our culture, or the worlds of our occupations, with a trained and accepted way of seeing the landscape. We look at the world through a particular lens, or glasses, that determines what we see, and more importantly, what we don’t see. This is a splendid example of how something can be both helpful and limiting simultaneously.
My friend, Charlie Palmgren, who has written about Creative Interchange in his book Ascent of the Eagle, makes this issue clear by differentiating consciousness from awareness. We build conscious structures, boxes, that provide us a lens through which we can see and decipher the complex world. Through these helpful lenses, we decipher and interpret reality, making sense of what is there and helping us to figure out how to move and act in that world. But, we can become “stuck” in our perceiving, missing other aspects and dimensions of reality that we simply don’t or, perhaps more accurately, can’t see. So consciousness gives us the gift of perception, but at the same time limits our ability to see those things that don’t fit our patterns.
At various points in our lives, we become pregnantly aware of this “stuckness” in the patterns of predictability. Life becomes stale, stagnant. We find ourselves with a strange but familiar longing to return to the original gift of awareness that sees connections rather than simply differentiating one thing from another. Both capacities, awareness and consciousness, are useful skills. The problem is that as we develop our logical cognitive skills, our awareness seems to be used less than our consciousness. Differentiation is a critical skill that we need to live in the world, but so is our capacity of awareness, that provides linkages, imagines creatively, and brings connectivity.
That connectivity becomes essential as we join together with others in human interaction. When various participants are engaging around a problem or a dilemma, each with their own unique perspective, it’s connectivity that makes fruitful connections possible, resulting in creative solutions and fresh opportunities that were not apparent on the surface. When we listen to another person expressing their unique perspective, it is our awareness that provides the connective power to link the “other’s point of view”, with our own, integrating the two creatively. And when the group is even larger, awareness is the juice that provides the connectivity that imagines, sees the possible linkages that could yield unthought-of benefits and synergy.
Speaking of connections, allow me to make two. One is a documentary I just came across on Netflix, a four-part series by Michael Pollan, based on his book, How To Change Your Mind. I commend both to your attention. In the book and documentary, he is looking at consciousness, namely in terms of expansiveness through psychedelic means such as psilocybin and other natural plants. He quotes his colleague, developmental psychologist, Alison Gopnik’s differentiation of consciousness that is somewhat like what I have been talking about in terms of the differences between awareness and consciousness.
For Gopnik, adults employ what she calls “spotlight consciousness” that narrowly focuses attention on a specific goal. This focus is required to get certain types of work done efficiently and correctly. She notes that young children use a different means that she terms as “lantern consciousness” which is more widely diffused, allowing the child to take in a broader scope of information from anywhere in the field of awareness. I love these two images, spotlight and lantern, which helpfully illustrate the different ways that we humans take in information. One can readily see the advantages, and disadvantages, of both. In Creative Interchange, we are offering the hopeful proposition that both ways, spotlight and lantern, are available to us as human actors and that the situational circumstances might suggest which of the two ways are more useful in certain work and settings. You can read Professor Gopnik’s intriguing perspective in her book aptly titled, The Philosophical Baby, available at fine booksellers near you. This will require the exercising of your “spotlight” function. You’re welcome.
Awareness requires more of the “lantern” function, allowing us to connect various components in our field. Connectivity derives its power from a human capacity known as imagination. Many years ago, studying the phenomena of human faith, I came across the German word that means “imagination”. The word is “einbildungskraft”, which powerfully gets at the real work of imagination: the power of making many things into one. Joining together multiple perspectives, a variety of agendas, connecting a constellation of values, takes some work to bring the seemingly disparate into unity, creating a new reality of “one” out of the many. It occurs to me that our country is desperately in need of some imagination.
Last week, I called up Harry Chapin from my memory basement to help us remember our innate capacity of curiosity, to see all the colors of the rainbow, not be limited to the conventional colors of red flowers and green leaves. It’s an act of my own odd capacity of connectivity to remember Georgia soul singer, Gladys Knight, and her song about imagination, I’ve Got to Use My Imagination. ” I really got to use, my imagination, to think of good reasons, to keep on keeping on!” In my own imaginary world, I was once a Pip onstage with my friends David Fikes and Rob Townes,,,,thankfully there were no cell phone cameras at that party, or I would be in a heap of trouble.
Preach it Gladys! In our polarized world, when one of us sees reality in one particular way, and another of us sees reality another way, it takes imaginative creativity to find a “way out of no way”, as I’ve heard a black preacher frame the situation. This is where the rubber meets the road in Creative Interchange. Can we follow the guidelines I have been pointing to from my brilliant friend, Charlie? Can we meet the conditions necessary for Creative Interchange to have a possibility of working? Think of Fox and MSNBC. Do you believe in miracles? With Charlie Palmgren’s proposition of Creative Interchange, even that is possible.
Again, in review, do you accept that you have intrinsic worth? If you do, it means that you are not trying to prove your worth by being “right” in some existentially desperate way. You can come cleanly from egoic needs to our engagement of interchange.
And do you grant that same worth to the “other” that you are engaging in Creative Interchange? If you do, you will treat the other person with respect and dignity, not holding them in contempt because they have a different perspective than you. You will listen with appreciative understanding.
Are you entering into the engagement in a spirit of trust, believing that both you and the other parties are trying to come up with a creative solution? Trust turns out to be the setting that allows Creative Interchange to happen.
Are you curious? Do you have a native desire to look beneath the surface, beyond the obvious, to seek out the intricacies and complexities that make up most problems and situations? Are you willing to ask questions, of yourself and others?
And today, we are adding another dimension to the gig: connectivity. Are you in touch with your childlike awareness, to turn up your lantern of awareness, to be open in order to find connections and imagine integrative ways to bring differing perspectives together?
Like we have said, Creative Interchange is a tall order. Intrinsic worth, trust, curiosity, and connectivity…..all required to lay the foundation for the amazing work of creative relationship.
There is one final component that Charlies calls us to if we are committed to Creative Interchange: tenacity. It should be obvious, but I’ll give it my best shot at bringing it all together for a conclusion next week. Just call me Tenacious D!
6 thoughts on “Making the Connection”
Endlessly curious here! My problem is not taking time to jot down, immediately, the brilliant solution or answer that unexpectedly popped into my mind! 🥴 (Or, if I do jot the idea down, I can’t find find what I jotted!)
Ha! That is why my journal is always by my side. Just trying to catch the stray insights.
Did you read Bishop Payne’s Christian Manifesto that Bp. Curry put out during Convention. Stunning. I called his immediately to thank him for his courage. His book on The Recovery of Christianity has some great ideas for parishes, very practical, but game changing.
Thanks David to point out another description of the difference between awareness and consciousness. The problem I’ve had to appreciatively understand the difference between both, is that in Dutch they are the same: ‘bewustzijn’. So I needed some ‘einbieldungskraft” to find decent translations of the concepts Charlie learned me and I finally opted for awareness = clear consciousness (lantern consciousness) and consciousness = colored consciousness (spotlight consciousness).
Understanding the concept ‘mindset’ was a great help. What you call in your blog ‘conscious structures, boxes’, I call ‘mindsets’. It is our mindset that provides us a lens through which we can see and decipher the complex world. And as Anaïs Nin once rightfully said (and Steven Covey took over without mentioning his source): “We don’t see reality as it is, we see reality as we are.” So, I understood that my mindset is ‘colored’ and therefor my lens too. That’s the reason I came up with ‘colored consciousness’.
As you know the conditions you are covering in this series of blogs are linked to the characteristics of Creative Interchange. The four characteristics of Creative Interchange can be distinguished and are not following each other linearly. In fact, Creative Interchange is a chaordic movement, Dee Hock would say.
Nevertheless, for my Engineer mind I see the first two characteristics of Creative Interchange as follows:
• Authentic Interaction needs Trust and Awareness (= observation of the reality)
• Appreciative Understanding needs Curiosity and Consciousness (=perception/interpretation of the reality).
We grown-ups go from observation to interpretation in one split second. We should mark a stop or ‘holding’ point before interpreting what we observe; we should and we don’t. We should also validate our interpretation with observed facts; we should and we don’t.
I see the problem of polarities as each side being ‘stuck’ in her/his colored mindset pretending seeing the truth. We never see ‘the’ truth, we are only capable of seeing ‘our’ truth. Being part of a polarity means not being curious to see the other ‘truth’. For example, Donald Trump did not need to be curious, since he (thought he) ‘owned’ the truth and even when the facts were obvious on January sixth he continued to be ‘blinded by the light’ (thanks Bruce Springsteen) of his personal colored mindset.
In the so-called second characteristic, Appreciative Understanding, one needs not only Curiosity, one needs being tolerant for ambiguity and therefore needs asking what Ed Schein calls “humble questions”.
Charlie thought me to stay curious whenever somebody utters something that is way out of my own frame of reference, because I can learn from the point of view of the other.
Thanks Johan. Your comments, as always, are enlightening. Thank you for reading, and adding some helpful elaborations. You are a valued colleague on this journey to understand and actualize Wieman’s thought. Blessings, my Flanderian flounder.
a Flanderian flounder could be the English translation of what we call in Flanders a ‘Flandrien’, which is a typical professional cyclist who has to labour through difficult one day classics like ‘Tour of Flanders’ or ‘Paris-Roubaix’ and another expression I’ve learned through you, David! And you’ve observed it rightly and interpreted correctly: I am indeed struggling and staggering clumsily in the wisdom of Wieman.
From near the ‘Flanders Fields’ with Love…
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Love you,. Johan!